Free speech in America gets it right.
I’ve already written about MNDoT’s new context-sensitivity and efforts to engage citizens and city officials. Then I attended a CIMS – that’s Corridor Investment Management Strategy – conference in Owatonna a few months ago dealing with the I-35 corridor and related routes a few months ago. The latest to come from the CIMS meeting is a website dedicated to gathering citizen input to help MnDOT Develop Evaluation Criteria for the CIMS Advancing Minnesota’s Sustainable Solutions Solicitation. The “solicitation” is a competition for $30 million to fund trunk highway projects that improve quality of life, environmental health or economic competitiveness and so MNDoT is asking for input to develop the criteria by which quality of life, environment and economic competitiveness are judged. So far, there are 5 proposed evaluation criteria including whether a project advances multimodal access or improves air quality – go add your own or comment on what’s there (don’t forget to look at the Minnesota GO plan for more information on MNDoT’s planning)
So, if MNDoT can do this on a statewide basis, why couldn’t Northfield do this for budget issues, parks, streets, etc.?
I went to the Rice County DFL convention today, which is citizen engagement up close and personal. But that’s not the topic here. Griff Wigley, our locally grown online engagement guru, linked to Steve Doyon’s Public process: Don’t botch citizen engagement which has some pithy advice not (yet) followed in Northfield.
Raw data is not enough, no matter how much of it you upload to the city website. Northfield’s website provide lots of links to project pages with unsearchable pdfs and, indeed, Council packets tend toward lots of undigestible raw matter, too. Providing clear, concise, compelling and relevant information remains a goal for the future.
What do you think about _______? is raw data in question form. To elicit useful, relevant, targeted engagement and feedback, folks need to know the limits of the discussion: what’s the budget, what questions are up for discussion and decision, and what policies affect the outcome.
Northfield will be updating its website soon, but as Griff has pointed out already, the shortcomings of the current online presence are not technological, but human – we still need to have the human intervention which turns the data into usable information, frames questions appropriately and presents it all in an engaging way.
Social media in social uprising is not new, but good reformers centuries ago learned how to use the communications tools and networks available at the time to reach their audiences.
Perhaps we can generalize that government and authority which are geared toward stability (or stasis or worse depending on the critic) will usually lag behind those with passion and zeal for change. But, government officials can learn to use grass-roots tools – even the Vatican has a YouTube channel.
Facebookproduct design manager, Julie Zhou wrote Online, Anonymity Breeds Contempt for the New York Times today, 11/30/2010. Just one more piece of the discussion other parts of which can be found on Locally Grown, the Northfield News in 2008, and this year and this blog.
Ms Zhou points to Facebook’s efforts to use its very social nature to create checks on “the online disinhibition effect.” I think this is probably more powerful than legislation. One reason I told my then-13 year old that if she wanted a Facebook page she’d have to “friend” me, was just this principle. If she knows Mom might be listening, she is more likely to think before posting. And, because Northfield is such a great community, my daughter also has other adult friends (her theater directors, parents of friends, coaches, grandparents, neighbors) who form part of her online social network and safety net so there are many caring adults who can follow the conversation.
I’m not quite sure how the Facebook social network model transfers to comments on news sites. It suggests at a minimum that anonymity should be discouraged in favor of being accountable for one’s words. Fair enough. I still think thoughtfulness and self-restraint are unlikely to be created by legislation, however, and editorial control over comments can weed out problem comments/commentators, but probably won’t help create a better culture of public discourse.
Vigorous public debate, I’d add, is not necessarily pleasant or nice, but involves criticism, rebuttal, and refutation, too. There must be ways to allow players to fight for the puck in the corner and even throw the occasional well-timed check.